Renault Clio RS v Ford Fiesta ST v VW Polo GTI v Peugeot 208 GTi

Renault Clio RS v Ford Fiesta ST v VW Polo GTI v Peugeot 208 GTi

You might not have considered a compact hot-hatch before.

You should. Not just because there’s a first time for everything, but because the biggest thing that strikes you when you see this lot lined up is just how much performance you get for the money these days.

Forget about the dinky-toy reputation; there’s nothing dinky about a small hatch these days. Fact is, they have as much, or more, front-seat space than, say, the first Aussie-made Camry of the 1980s that was sold – and accepted by the market – as a family car.

You can forget everything you thought you knew about performance in small hatchbacks. The facts can’t be ignored, every one of these alleged tiddlers would hose a GT Falcon of the 1970s across the first 400m of hotmix and, presumably, beyond. They’ll return remarkable fuel economy if you let them, they’re all well equipped, built to a high standard and are as practical as any other hatchback ever has been. And they’re cheap!

Four hot hatches parkedEven without the space, performance, efficiency and equipment, just being able to go this fast for so few dollars suggests that we’re still well within the golden era of the motor car, regardless of what Prius drivers would have us believe.

So what have we got here? Let’s start with the Renault Clio Sport. At $30,000 it’s the second most expensive car here. Mind you, it’s a four-door, so that’s where some of the extra gold goes, but it still looks like a two-door with those hidden rear door-handles. It’s also the only one here with a double-clutch transmission (a six-speed).

But we can’t let it off the hook completely, there’s no three-pedal option – it’s a double-clutch or nothing. With 1.6 litres and, like the rest of them, a turbo huffing away as well, the Renault is good for 147kW and 240Nm at a low 1750rpm.

Peugeot 208 GTi frontThe dearest hatch is actually the Peugeot 208 GTi, which weighs in at $30,990. It justifies that by having the most power (153kW) and torque is a healthy 300Nm. On the downside, it’s a three-door (hey, hatches are meant to be practical, right?) and it’s probably the quirkiest in layout terms.

Last year, the VW Polo GTi ditched the twin-charged 1.4-litre engine and moved to a full 1.8 litres with a turbo. The result is 141kW and the most torque of this bunch: 320Nm. With the move to the bigger engine also came the option of a conventional six-speed manual tranny. At $27,490, it’s a neat $1500 more than the cheapest car here, the Fiesta ST. It’s also the retro king with that, um, eye-catching tartan interior.

Which leaves us with a car that has never failed to bring a twinkle to our eyes here at MOTOR: the remarkable Ford Fiesta ST. The price as we went to press was still $25,990, but it won’t be for long, so get in quick if you’re in the market. The 1.6-litre turbo is still good for 134kW and 240Nm, with 147kW and 290Nm available for bursts thanks to the overboost function – it’s still a crackerjack little engine.

Ford Fiesta ST frontOn the strip, the Fiesta ST suffered most from the relative lack of traction and went on to record a 7.5-second run to 100 and a 15.3-second 400m at 152.7km/h. Yes, that’s slower than the same car did at BFYB, but the Heathcote surface was simply not as grippy on the day as the recently resurfaced Winton layout.

It wasn’t that the ST boosted up too quickly and lost traction, it just never really felt as strong at the top end and wringing it right out in each gear was harder work. The Clio crossed the line third with 7.1sec and 15.1sec at 151.6km/h with the Peugeot just ahead with 6.8sec and 15.0sec at 155.0km/h.

Which means the Polo GTi was the only one to break into the 14s; a 14.9sec at 155.3km/h, in fact, and a 6.8sec 0-100 time. What that doesn’t tell you is that the Polo feels torquier than the others and it’s only the VW’s tall second and third gearing that meant it didn’t go faster on the strip. It was only j-u-s-t getting into fourth gear at the 400m mark, so shorter cogs would see it well into the mid-14s we reckon.

Volkswagen Polo GTi sideBut it’s that gearing and torque combo that also give the Polo its flavour on the road. Away from the track and that 1.8-litre feels fatter than ever and even though it’s not the breathiest or most obviously turboed, it always feels that tiny bit fitter than the rest.

The Peugeot and Fiesta each gets a gust of wind up its skirt as you rev them up, giving that lovely turbo-motor impression of being blown along by a stiff tail-wind; which, if you think about how a turbocharger works, they are.

The Clio, meanwhile, is more or less in the same camp as the VW with a more linear delivery and a flatter torque curve overall. That’s also what makes the VW and the Renault feel the most grown-up of the four, with less of a teenager’s temperament and demeanour.

Renault clio rs drivingAt speed on a bumpy back road, the Clio loses that adult composure. The ride suddenly starts to feel jiggly and patchy compared with any of the other three and if you up the pace another notch, it starts to become a bit of a battle over bigger lumps where the Clio almost seems willing to give up its grip momentarily and it starts to pitch even more fore-aft. No, you won’t end up sea-sick, but it’s equally true that the Renault just doesn’t cope as well with our patchwork country roads.

It’s worse when you back to back it with either the VW or the Peugeot because they both ride smoothly with loads of balance up their sleeves. It’s actually quite difficult to pick whether it was the Polo or the 208 that rides best; I reckoned it was the Pug, editor Campbell gave the nod to the VW. That suggests the difference is no more than the seat foam density in each because you’d make roughly two-and-a-half Campbells out of one me.

Either way, there’s more or less nothing between them, although the Polo does feel a bit more substantial in the way the body feels absolutely tight over the worst craters. One thing’s for sure, the Polo GTi has the best combination of steering weight, feel and accuracy. Though it’s not as twitchy as some, it never feels lazy or slow to turn.

Ford Fiesta ST frontBut all three of those feel positively placid when you jump into the Fiesta and fang it down the same road. It doesn’t seem to jump around like the Clio, but man, is it lively in every other way. Ultimately, it’s not as quick point to point because there’s a bit less front-end grip, but it’s super playful. It has the ability to tighten or widen its line and therefore cancel out that initial push by leaving the tiller where it is and simply modulating the throttle pedal.

If you’re into a sensitive – let’s call it slightly twitchy – chassis, then the Fiesta ST will be the one that does it for you. If you’re not that person, then the Ford then becomes the car most likely to cart you off if you lose concentration for a nano-second. Point of view, I believe they call it.

Little cars like these aren’t as lightweight as they used to be, but even so, there are no porkers among them, so they should stop pretty hard. Three of them do. The Clio pulled up from 100km/h in 36.1m, but it actually braked better on the second stop with a bit of heat in the rotors.

Renault Clio RS rearThe Volkswagen wasn’t as sharp on the stops, but it nailed down consistent – and I mean consistent – 38.0m stops time and time again. The Fiesta was sharp, too, with 36.9m, but the pedal feel was pretty lifeless and I found that the ball of my foot was pressing on the pedal-shaft, not the actual pedal-pad where it should have been.

Which leaves us with the Peugeot which, as I write this, is still rolling to a stop from 100. Not only was its stopping distance disappointing with a best of 40.6 metres (and that on its second stop), but the pedal felt mushy and totally uninspiring. For what is such an otherwise dynamic package, this is odd to say the least.

When it comes to the peak-hour shuffle and the freeway-drone which, even though we don’t like to admit it, is where we do the bulk or our driving these days, the hatches shake themselves out in a different order again. Both French cars have tall top gears with the Peugeot reading 2300rpm at 100km/h and the Clio registering 2400rpm on its illegible-in-strong-sunlight tacho.

Driving the vw polo gtiThose tall intermediate gears in the VW close up a little in top with 2600rpm and the Fiesta a leggy 2300rpm. They all feel totally relaxed at those speeds and would all cruise well beyond that. Noise-wise, there’s very little in it with the 208 a single decibel hushier, which probably adds to its plush feel.

Volkswagen wins the slick-shifter award on your way to sixth gear, while the Fiesta has the rortiest engine note. The Clio’s shift paddles are a source of annoyances on a twisty run because they’re fixed to the steering column and don’t move with the wheel.

There are other things about the Clio’s interior that seem to exist purely to annoy you. The gear selector feels flimsy and brittle, while the ergonomics could only be French and include a cruise-control master switch between the centre-console that has to be disabled before the RS mode can be engaged. Sacre bleu! Merde!

Puegeot side drivingBy far the most confronting interior layout belongs to the Peugeot which places its instruments high and the tiller low, meaning you look over the top of the steering wheel to read the gauges. 

Personally, I don’t find it too bad, because I’m long in the body and therefore sit high in a car. But Luffy, who is a good inch or two taller than me and possesses a more conventional torso:leg ratio, can’t read ’em. Fads come and go, but I really can’t see this one catching on.

By contrast, the Polo is so logical it’s almost boring. It has also been aped by plenty of other manufacturers over the years, so it’s starting to look a bit generic. But it works with heel-clicking efficiency and feels like a quality thing. The seats, tartan though they may be, are supportive and proportioned to suit a Germanic frame.

Fiesta ST driving hardIf the VW is stoic, the Renault slightly frustrating and the Peugeot plain weird, the Fiesta’s interior is the original mad woman’s breakfast. Seriously, it looks like an explosion in a small-button factory. The centre stack is a riot and the stereo, in particular, needs a bout of trial and error to even switch it on.

But you’ll forgive it because the standard Recaros are just lovely (even if you have to climb over the bolster to get out again) and the vision out is brilliant. In fact, the two three-doors (the Fiesta and 208) have by far the best view to the rear and side.

In the final wash-up, there’s a lot more to like about all these little hatches than there is to dislike. The first one to be eliminated from our short-list, however, would be the Clio. The double-clutch gearbox is less satisfying than it should be and it lacks that last little percentage of driver involvement. And those ergonomics prove that being different isn’t always better.

Four hot hatches frontsThe Fiesta is next for the chop, mainly because it doesn’t go as hard as the rest and for its scattergun approach to interior trimming. That said, it’s cheap and irrepressibly cheerful. If you like your hatches with a bit of mongrel in ’em, your order might easily be different to ours.

The top step of the podium comes down to the Peugeot and the VW. Ultimately, despite its terrific engine, refined feel and ultra-capable suspension, the Peugeot’s weedy brakes, loony dash layout and big price-tag play against it.

Leaving, of course, the all-but-flawless Polo GTI to claim the silverware. Which kind of sounds like it’s a default-winner by doing fewer things poorly, but that’s really not the case. The VW is capable, fast, well built, practical and a true bargain among bargains.

IN DETAIL

Peugeot 208 GTi

Peugeot 208 GTi engine4 OUT OF 5 STARS

LIKE: Great ride/handling mix; plush interior
DISLIKE: Weak brakes; confronting driving position; it’s expensive

SPECS
Body: 3-door, 5-seat hatch
Drive: front-wheel
Engine: 1598cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Bore/stroke: 77.0 x 85.8mm
Compression: 10.5:1
Power: 153kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 300Nm @ 3000rpm
0-100km/h: 6.8sec (as tested)
0-400m: 15.0sec @ 155.0km/h (as tested)
Power/weight: 131kW/tonne
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Weight: 1160kg
Suspension(F): struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Suspension(R): torsion beam, coil springs, anti-roll bar
L/W/H: 3973/1739/1460mm
Wheelbase: 2538mm
Tracks: 1482/1492mm (f/r)
Steering: electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion
Brakes(F): 302mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers
Brakes(R): 249mm solid discs, single-piston calipers
Wheels: 17.0 x 7.5-inch (f/r)
Tyre sizes: 205/45 R17 (f/r)
Tyre: Michelin Pilot Exalto
Price as tested: $30,990

VW Polo GTI

Volkswagen Polo GTi interior4 OUT OF 5 STARS

LIKE: Grunty engine; slick-shifting box; decent ride
DISLIKE: Interior feels its age; torque can overwhelm traction

SPECS
Body: 5-door, 5-seat hatch
Drive: front-wheel
Engine: 1798cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Bore/stroke: 82.5 x 84.2mm
Compression: 9.6:1
Power: 141kW @ 4300-6200rpm
Torque: 320Nm @ 1450-4200rpm
0-100km/h: 6.8sec (as tested)
0-400m: 14.9sec @ 155.3km/h (as tested)
Power/weight: 114kW/tonne
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Weight: 1234kg
Suspension(F): struts, A-arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Suspension(R): torsion beam, coil springs, anti-roll bar
L/W/H: 3983/1682/1443mm
Wheelbase: 2470mm
Tracks: 1447/1441mm (f/r)
Steering: electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion
Brakes(F): 288mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers
Brakes(R): 260mm solid discs, single-piston calipers
Wheels: 17 x 7.5-inch (f/r)
Tyre sizes: 205/40 R17 (f/r)
Tyre: Bridgestone Potenza S001
Price as tested: $27,490

Ford Fiesta ST

Ford Fiesta ST engine4 OUT OF 5 STARS

LIKE: Awesome chassis; value; Recaro seats
DISLIKE: Will bite if provoked; ride can be firm

SPECS
Body: 3-door, 5-seat hatch
Drive: front-wheel
Engine: 1596cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Bore/stroke: 79.0 x 81.4mm
Compression: 10.1:1
Power: 134kW @ 5700rpm (147kW on overboost)
Torque: 240Nm @ 1600-5000rpm (290Nm on overboost)
0-100km/h: 7.5sec (as tested)
0-400m: 15.3sec @ 152.7km/h (as tested)
Power/weight: 112kW/tonne
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Weight: 1197kg
Suspension(F): struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Suspension(R): torsion beam, coil springs, anti-roll bar
L/W/H: 3982/1978/1456mm
Wheelbase: 2489mm
Tracks: 1492/1481mm (f/r)
Steering: electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion
Brakes(F): 278mm ventilated discs, 2-piston calipers
Brakes(R): 253mm solid discs, single-piston calipers
Wheels: 17 x 7.0-inch (f/r)
Tyre sizes: 205/40 R17 84Y (f/r)
Tyre: Bridgestone Potenza RE050A
Price as tested: $25,990

Renault Clio RS

Renault Clip RS engine3.5 OUT OF 5 STARS

LIKE: Strong brakes; five-door practicality 
DISLIKE: Lacklustre transmission; jittery back-road ride

SPECS
Body: 5-door, 5-seat hatch
Drive: front-wheel
Engine: 1618cc inline-4, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Bore/stroke: 79.7 x 81.1mm
Compression: 9.5:1
Power: 147kW @ 6000rpm
Torque: 240Nm @ 1750rpm
0-100km/h: 7.1sec (as tested)
0-400M: 15.1sec @ 151.6km/h (as tested)
Power/weight: 120kW/tonne
Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch
Weight: 1218kg
Suspension(F): struts, coil-springs, anti-roll bar
Suspension(R): torsion beam, coil springs, anti-roll bar
L/W/H: 4090/1732/1432mm
Wheelbase: 2589mm
Tracks: 1504/1500mm
Steering: electrically-assisted rack-and-pinion
Brakes(F): 320mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers
Brakes(R): 260mm solid discs, single-piston calipers
Wheels: 17.0 x 7.5-inch (f/r)
Tyre sizes: 205/45 R17 (f/r)
Tyres: Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 2
Price as tested: $29,990

Mazda

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